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During Droughts, Many Poor Americans Will Lack Clean Tap Water: Study

THURSDAY, April 30, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Poor and minority Americans are most likely to lose access to clean tap water as droughts become more common and severe, a new paper says.

Water service in the United States is delivered by tens of thousands of community systems, most of which are small and funded locally, according to the study.

More than 80% of the 50,000-plus U.S. community water systems delivering water year-round serve fewer than 3,300 people, according to author Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham, N.C.

"Systems this small face tremendous challenges in delivering safe drinking water even under normal conditions, and as droughts become more frequent and intense, the challenges are going to mount," she said in a university news release.

That puts many households at risk of water contamination or loss of service, and the risk is highest in low-income or predominantly minority neighborhoods, according to Mullin.

She said correcting this disparity requires a fundamental re-evaluation of the management and funding of the nation's community water systems.

"Small water systems already are at a disadvantage when it comes to protecting water security during drought, because of the financial constraints they face," Mullin said. "Underlying patterns of segregation can amplify these weaknesses along economic and racial lines."

Community water systems are funded by user fees, so they typically extend service to neighborhoods or adjacent municipalities where residents are more able to pay.

That means that some communities get high-quality water service, while others -- often rural communities or places where poverty is concentrated -- get lower-quality service, according to Mullin.

"Drought aggravates vulnerabilities for small, under-resourced water systems. The user-fee finance model then limits options for drought response, because policies that conserve dwindling water resources reduce revenue for water systems and make it harder for residents to pay their water bills," she said.

Mullin said it's time to rethink reliance on user fees as a financial model for delivering such an essential service.

"States should consider equalizing resources across water systems to counter the legacy of racism and segregation, as we have done in public school funding," she said.

Small water systems also need to encourage and enforce water conservation, Mullin added.

Her paper was recently published in a special drought edition of the journal Science.

More information

The World Health Organization has more on water safety and quality.

SOURCE: Duke University, news release, April 20, 2020

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